Making New Friends: The Psychic Industry Reaches Out
"Greetings, my friends. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives." This quote from the Ed Wood movie Plan 9 From Outer Space is more likely to elicit laughter than to be called profound. But this single line from a hilariously bad movie may contain a small nugget of truth. In a world full of confusion, curiosity about the future may be the one thing we all have in common.In search of knowledge of the future, many have turned to those who claim to have psychic powers. The closest some have come to a psychic may be a fortune telling booth at a Halloween carnival, but in the last decade, the business of reading the future has evolved into a technologically advanced industry.Modern psychics are more likely to use a modem or an infrared photography system than tea leaves or a crystal ball. With the growth of psychic telephone services, phone networks transfer callers to thousands of psychics all over the country who work from their homes. Many more services have sprouted up on the Internet, allowing customers to receive psychic readings in chat rooms or by e-mail.In the last 10 years, television infomercials for psychic services have so saturated late-night slots that ads for kitchen appliances such as ginsu knives and vegetable dehydrators have all but disappeared.Dionne Warwick has arguably gained more attention from her Psychic Friends Network than from her career as a singer. Her many friends include more than 2,000 psychics, scads of soap opera stars and down-and-out actors and, of course, thousands of credit card-wielding callers.Warwick's formula worked, and in the last 10 years, many celebrities followed suit. La Toya Jackson and NBC-TV's Days of Our Lives star Drake Hogsdon are among the host of stars who have launched psychic networks of their own, charging from $3 to $4 per minute for psychic counsel. Ads for the services promise to reunite lovers, solve problems, answer money questions and help callers make the best decisions for their lives.For thousands of years, access to psychics was restricted to the rich and famous. Ancient kings consulted psychics before dispatching their armies, and Princess Diana is rumored to have consulted a psychic throughout her royal marriage. With the growth of phone psychic lines in the late Eighties, the same expert advice became available to national leaders and manicurists alike. For the first time, Warwick said, psychic help was available to the general public.According to the PFN home page on the World Wide Web, President Reagan had something to do with it. Demand for psychics grew when the public discovered that he and First Lady Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer in planning their schedules. Since then, reports have surfaced that Russian president Boris Yeltsin also consults psychics.When Warwick's polished infomercial was broadcast into millions of homes in the late Eighties, it may have been the first time a positive image of psychics was broadcast, one that was not in the form of a joke or a Saturday Night Live skit. Since then, more than 10 million people have consulted Warwick's network of psychics, and Warwick has plans to expand the network beyond the United States. Curious about America's phone friends, I made the call late one night. In the name of research, I joined the psychic friends circle of success and called Dionne's Psychic Friends Network. My master psychic, Judith, used both her psychic gifts and Tarot cards to give a reading. Sensing that I was a first-time caller, Judith guided me through the reading. After I gave her my name and my birthday, Judith asked me to close my eyes and concentrate on whatever I wanted to know. She told me she would try to read off the energy. She sensed that there were things going on in my life I was confused about -- something probably true of most people who call a psychic in the middle of the night. Then Judith complimented me, telling me I am giving and thoughtful. Well, I wasn't going to dispute that. She gave me some good news, foreseeing that I will go on a trip in the near future. Now I was excited, but was this a trip to Enid or a trip to England? I didn't think to ask. So far, the psychic friend was working out great. Everything Judith had said was true or something I wanted to be true. Then, as she tried to get more specific, she also began to strike out. She asked if I have kids and if I was in law enforcement. I pleaded innocent on both counts. Judith said she doesn't get many calls from Oklahoma. I began to wonder just how much she could tell about me from reading my energy from her house in Maryland. Did she know what color socks I was wearing? Could she read my mind? I was afraid it would cost too much to find out. Through the ear piece, I heard the shuffling of cards, and Judith said she was using a Tarot deck. She suggested I check the oil in my car and said I needed to get my eyes checked. Incidentally, the oil in my car had been leaking, and I had almost failed a vision test a week before the call. In an almost motherly tone, Judith told me I could be eating healthier. I admitted guilt on this count, but in a nation of Twinkie-toting, french fry-obsessed Americans, I am not alone. As the call approached the 10-minute mark, Judith suggested I ask questions about anything that was on my mind, but, worried about the cost of the call, I had to end our little chat. Judith was very nice. She made the hidden and unseen world of psychic powers seem like a talk over coffee. She was kind, understanding and encouraging, and she seemed like the kind of person you would want to be your friend. In fact, it seemed as if she knew me. Telephone psychic friends make you feel good about yourself, but they certainly are expensive friends to make. Despite her hits and misses, what Judith said led me to some serious introspection and deep anxiety about my next phone bill.It's easy to see that the psychic phone services' "positive" energy is a main reason for their phenomenal success. While your real friends may take you for granted, phone psychics recognize your good qualities. And, unlike real friends, psychic friends are available 24 hours a day.Bryan Farha, chair of the department of counseling psychology at Oklahoma City University, thinks the positive messages of the psychic networks advertised on television are a key to their success."One of their success stories was being interviewed, and she said 'It's all so positive!' and herein may lie one of the reasons for their success," Farha said."It doesn't take a genius to see that the world ain't such a great place right now, and, of course, things happen to people that are not so positive."Farha has written for Skeptical Inquirer magazine and attended this year's World Skeptic's Congress held by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal."I think that is a hope message, and that's what people need these days is hope, but I just don't think that they need false hope," he said. "What we have to keep in mind is that we realize that this is entertainment." Oklahoma CityÕs Cyndy Green worked for the Psychic Friends Network for a year. A professional spiritual and psychic consultant, her experience includes 14 years of study and 10 years as a professional reader. Green claims to be a genuine psychic. But she's not so sure about the others. "With about 2,000 operators, how could all of them be good? That's what I think," she said."In my mind I thought they're all fakes out there, and so if they have a good psychic, a real one, they're going to be thrilled."But when Green applied for the job, she was surprised by the screening process."They asked a whole bunch of background questions; I had to give references," she said. "It was much more thorough than I thought it was going to be."After a year of working for the Psychic Friends Network, Green quit because of the growth of her local clientele at her business, Seekers of Light."My clientele here got so big that I couldn't do both, and I prefer in person to over the phone," she said.Green advises people against calling psychics on 900 lines and suggests they ask around to find a good local psychic. Doing that saves money, she said, and gives the client the advantage of seeing the psychic in person."Ask around. Don't just stop on the corner at Madame Zina's or something," Green said.Some members of the largest local organization of psychics -- the Organization of Psychic Educational Research Associates, or OPERA -- work for 900 lines, said Joane Fogel, immediate past president of the 150-member group."I can't say too much about telephones being bad or phony because some of our people do work the telephone lines because they're handicapped and can't hold down a nine-to-five job," Fogel said."At least there are some good ones out there."The popular image of psychics is of scarf-clad, crystal ball-hugging Gypsies. It's an image that has been perpetuated in TV and film. Whoopi Goldberg's character Jane sought psychic help in Boys on the Side, and psychic characters have become commonplace on daytime television.NBC-TV's Another World had Frankie Frame, a free spirit, hippie psychic who helped the Bay City Police Department solve crimes. On NBC-TV's Days of Our Lives, high-society Celeste makes predictions about the love lives of Salem's young singles. Psychics have sneaked into advertising, with Jimmy the guessing waiter the spotlight of El Chico TV and radio ads.Green likes seeing the psychics on television."I don't remember them being on five years ago," she said. "It's pretty cool."Fogel, who says she has been psychic all her life and has done readings for more than 50 years, can speak of how times have changed for psychics."When I was a little girl, it was a lot more open in New York City than it is now,Ó she said. ÒThen I moved to Oklahoma in 1956. I just didn't let it bother me too much.ÓFor Fogel, psychic ability runs in the family."I had this Aunt Jessie who was a fortune teller, and that's how she got by in the Depression," Fogel said. "They didn't have Social Security, and she was a widow lady, and that's how she lived."While psychic readers have been around for centuries, other parts of the psychic business have become more mainstream, Fogel said."When I was a little girl, it was very unusual to ask someone's birthday and to know what sign they were and starting telling you about them," she said.Now, people can receive daily horoscopes in newspapers, by telephone or in $1 scrolled horoscopes in drug store check-out lines. But Fogel does not think psychic services have grown in popularity because of celebrity endorsements."I think what's responsible for it growing is that it's a time that people want new answers," she said."Everybody is kind of looking to see how we're going to handle this new century coming up. It's not just a new century, it's a whole new millennium."Green agrees that the approaching millennium may have something to do with it."Back when we were changing to 1000 they were very much a seeking society then," Green said. "I personally don't have that viewpoint that it's all going to go to hell, but I guess when people are scared, they begin to search more."Green, who is working on a degree in sociology, said her occupation can make introductions awkward."I usually don't go up to people and say 'Hi, I'm Cyndy the psychic,' " she said. "That's a really hard thing, because people are saying 'What do you do?' I usually just say I'm a counselor, because what I do is spiritual counseling."I think people think it's much more mystical than probably it is, or much more weird," Green said. "I don't dress differently, and I don't think differently."Green finds her reward in helping people."It's almost like regular counseling," she said. "You go to regular counseling so that you will leave feeling better. I think you go to a spiritual counselor to get that understanding to leave feeling wholer."Green speculates that a society plagued with high crime and drug and alcohol addiction leaves people hungry for spirituality. But most of all, people go to psychics for advice in their love lives. Some psychics even specialize in the areas of relationship guidance and romance forecasts."Questions about love bring more people to psychics than anything else."As phone psychic services continue to grow, local psychics expand their businesses and psychic fairs grow in size. But in Oklahoma, an 80-year-old state statute makes reading palms or any method of clairvoyance illegal if money changes hands. The little-known statute adopted in 1915 makes charging fees for fortune telling a misdemeanor punishable by fines from $50 to $500 and 30 days to six months in the county jail.In 1992, the Oklahoma City police arrested psychic Sister Sophie, who asked an undercover policeman for $3,000 to remove a curse from his family. But Oklahoma City Police Department spokesman Nate Tarver said he does not know of any recent enforcement of the statute in the city.Psychic fair promoters skirt the law by posting signs claiming the services are for entertainment only. Fogel said the law once was used to keep OPERA from holding a fair at the state Fairgrounds.Still, between OPERA and Green's company, Seekers of Light, nine or 10 psychic fairs are held each year in Oklahoma City. Both Fogel and Green said their fairs keep growing in size, and a wider variety of people have begun coming to psychic fairs."In the beginning, you might have said it's the far-right people or the far-left people -- you know, people on the fringes," Green said. "Now we'll have therapists and counselors and lawyers and all kinds of your 'normal' people come in there. Maybe part of the stigma about it being only the crazy people, maybe that's lightening up or changing."Fair-goers can pay from $15 to $25 for a palm reading, a Tarot card reading, numerology or other methods. Aura photographers use metal plates to measure a clientÕs electrical impulses, then use a special camera to combine that photo with an image of the client. Then, a reader interprets what a client's aura says about him or her.Many vendors and psychics travel a circuit of psychic fairs that could keep them on the road year round. Readers come from Missouri, Kansas, Texas and Arkansas to fairs in Oklahoma City. Most of the readers are ordained in the Universal Life Church. "Oklahoma's fairs, for whatever reason, are so small compared to Wichita, Kansas, which is a small town," Green said."Up there, they're just much more open, I guess."Despite their recent popularity, psychics are nothing new. Many religions have traditions of prophets and divination. The plot of Shakespeare's Macbeth is reliant upon a fortune-telling witch, and Oedipus Rex would be nothing more than a sad story but for the Oracle at Delphi, which predicted Rex's tragic end.What is new is the means of communication between psychic and client. Those seeking predictions can read La Toya Jackson's Oracle on the Internet or chat on-line with a psychic through Delphi Online.Times have changed since Warwick first chanted her mantra, "All it takes is a telephone and an open mind." For the even more technologically advanced, all it takes is a modem and an open mind.The Psychic Friends Network Internetwork offers a free daily fortune cookie and monthly memberships to receive astrology, clairvoyance or Tarot card readings. The page can connect you with Richard Marianni, psychic advisor to Madonna. Net surfers also can subscribe to regular e-mail forecasts.The Cyber Psychic can meet all your psychic needs with e-mail readings for $45 each. To make an appointment for a chat on the Psychic Internet, just e-mail a psychic and set a time.The field of psychic predictions is no longer just the territory of supermarket tabloids, but a marketplace of corporations. Many companies own a handful of psychic services, most of which are based in Florida. The National Psychic Network Corporation owns the La Toya Jackson Psychic Network, Mother Love's Love Psychics, the Celebrity Psychic Network and the Witches of Salem Network. As the increased availability of services suggests, the popularity of psychics is clearly on the rise, Farha said. He is among a group of scientists and educators who are frustrated that people are too quick to accept psychic counsel as truth.Farha will teach an anomalistic psychology course in the spring at OCU, applying skeptical analysis to draw conclusions about clairvoyance, telepathy and other parapsychological phenomena.He doubts the legitimacy of phone services."It represents a population of people who apparently don't know how to think very critically, but also have been taken advantage of," Farha said.And, if psychics can see the future, Farha asks why they don't help solve international problems."If they can really see into the future, we'd have world-wide peace, and, as you can see, we're far from that," he said.Farha also places blame on the media for sensationalizing stories. For example, a September London Times report of a study that found that pets form psychic links with their owners left many questions unanswered. The best way to evaluate paranormal claims is to investigate them one by one, Farha said, and avoid making blanket claims of legitimacy or fraud.But Fogel is not bothered by skeptics who doubt her psychic abilities."I just assume that everyone knows when I talk to them I'm telling the truth," she said. "So if they're skeptical about it, I just keep talking to them, and they can see that they may not agree with me, but they know that I'm not lying to them."